Apr. 11, 2008 A breast cancer patient's age alone should not determine whether or not she receives standard breast-conservation treatments, including a lumpectomy and radiation therapy; however, if additional health problems (comorbidities) are present, treatments should be individualized based on age and the type of comorbidities, according to a study in the April 1 edition of the International Journal for Radiation Oncology*Biology*Physics, the official journal of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology.
The occurrence of breast cancer in women increases as women age. According to the National Cancer Institute's SEER Cancer Statistics Review, women between the ages of 75 and 79 have the highest incidence of breast cancer diagnoses at 497 cases per 100,000 people. Along with cancer, most women in this age group are dealing with additional health problems. According to a 1999 women's health and aging study in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, the majority of older patients diagnosed with cancer have at least one other medical condition and more than half of patients with cancer over the age of 65 have three or more associated medical conditions.
This study, conducted by the departments of Radiation Oncology, Biostatistics and Epidemiology, and Medicine, Division of Geriatrics, at the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine in Philadelphia, sought to determine the impact of these additional medical problems on breast cancer patients who receive the same standard treatments as patients with no additional medical problems and if old age is a reason to deny some standard treatments.
Most randomized trials that compare outcomes of breast-conserving surgery with and without radiation consistently show more positive outcomes when radiation is used; however, most of the trials exclude women older than 70 years old so there is not a lot of data on the impact of radiation on older women.
Between 1979 and 2002, 238 women, 70 years old and older, with Stage I or II invasive carcinoma of the breast received breast-conservation therapy and their outcomes were compared by age groups and comorbidities. Most of the patients studied had mild comorbidities.
The researchers found that the number of deaths from breast cancer among the patients studied was similar to the number seen among all age groups of patients without additional medical problems. The researchers also found that the majority of elderly women with early-stage breast cancers and mild comorbidities actually benefited from the use of radiation and had minimal side effects.
The overall survival rates for the patients in the five- and 10-year follow-up periods were 80 percent and 50 percent, respectively; however, more deaths during the 10-year period were caused by intercurrent diseases than breast cancer.
"Doctors need to understand that comorbidities should be the determining factor in deciding an older patient's course of treatment, not age," said Eleanor Harris, M.D., clinical director of radiation oncology at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla. "There is a sense in the field that elderly women need less treatment than younger women, but we should not be under treating women simply because they have passed the age of 70."
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